Overlooking the Future: “Futurism” in Comics

Futurism is pervasive in comics; whether it's the overtness of Tony stark's self-assessment or the subtlety of Ted Kord's gadgetry. Everything is just a hair or more past bleeding edge. I guess this shouldn't be a surprise considering that modern comics were conceived as a mixture of sic-fi pulp molded in the minds of adolescent men. If anyone is going to set a tone for things being ever so slightly better tomorrow it’d by that group of nerds and dreamers. But I don't mean to disparage, if anything we love them for that futuristic spirit. One of my earliest posts on this very site concerned ideas conceived within comics only to be realized by reality.

But what about those who really try to predict the future? This has come up a few times for me recently (here and here) and it's something I always notice in the background of comics, so I thought it might be good to bring the discussion to the public.

Obviously there are not a lot of rules to futurism and it’s not a real scientific discipline. (Which is not meant as a slight, it’s still interesting or I wouldn’t be writing about it, but there’s not Department of Futurism at your nearest university.) If anything, futurism is an art movement, but the name has been used by people who consider themselves visionaries about where technology might take us, and that’s whom I’m referring to when I use the term. It’s like technological divination on a global scale. But is it worth anything? That’s a value judgment but I’d say it falls somewhere in between TED talks and Sci-fi novels. Interesting, engaging, but without an actual product, just so much speculation.

But are futurists often right? The general trend is that futurists, or really anyone who tries to predict what the landscape of tomorrow might be, tend to over-estimate the near future and under-estimate the far future. What that means is that a person in 1905 might have looked at these new inventions called “aeroplanes” and thought, By the year 1920 I expect everyone should own their own plane, which didn’t quite work out; whereas when computers were first invented it was inconceivable that everyone should own one, much less several including ones you could carry around in your pocket. And the internet? Forget about it. Now I’m sure anyone who did enough digging could find someone who predicted something like the internet at one time, but you have to remember that there are a lot of predictions being made all that time about everything, the actual correct prediction is about as rare as random chance. Go figure.

So what does this have to do with comics? Well one thing that always bugged me about comics is how technology is invented in these comics back in the 1960’s that still isn’t possible today. We’re closer, but still pretty far off. And yet, because comics have to continue to engage and excite, the technology of those worlds continues to push forward. So everything we see in comics is just a little, if not a lot, out of reach, and always will be. Maybe that doesn’t bother anyone else, but it sure gets under my skin. And I think Marvel is the worst offender of the bunch, so forgive me if most of my examples come from them.

Let’s take someone not even that high on the totem pole: Mysterio. Sure, he was a clever dude, but he has hologram technology way beyond anything we’ve come up with. And he originally developed that just to save the prop department a few bucks. And he did it in 1964. I could go on and on listing examples of when tech is beyond the modern and the future never catches up, but that would be tedious. But I’m sure you can think of a few more off the top of your own head without me having to spell it out.

On the other hand, because I do want to be fair, Tony Stark kind of gets it right. While we’re slowly catching up to the original cave-built built version of the suit (see last week), we’re a ways off from anything in the current world of Iron Man, so what gets Stark a pass? I guess the pass should probably go to Fraction, and Ellis before him, for grounding the character as a futurist AND industrialist. Allowing him to have big ideas and put the rubber to the road. Fraction has even argued (successfully in my opinion) about why Tony wouldn’t distribute a lot of the technology he has. It wouldn’t be cost effective to mass market. Many a scientist has had to face the reality of economics. I like that we as the reader are seeing behind the scenes with the tech ubermensch of the Marvel U. Reed Richards has some game too, but his ideas for innovation are always a bit off the wall and his method making money eerily close to being a patent troll, so I stick with Tony in this instance. It’s the silver lining that maybe what we’re seeing in Invincible Iron Man really is hiding out in someone’s garage outside San Jose, just waiting for the patent paperwork to go through. Good times ahead, right?

I get that comics have to stay ahead of us lest we get bored. There will always be a smaller nano-bot, a faster spaceship, and a more effective laser. It’s almost a requirement of the form because it helps with the story and makes everything just that much more fantastic. I just wish we got to catch up more. Maybe by the next decade we’ll at least be up to date with 1960’s Marvel technology, but somehow I doubt it. I just have to remember, the grass is always greener on the other side of the future.


Ryan Haupt isn’t sure how a post about futurism morphed into a very long “where’s my jetpack” rant, but somehow it did. Hear him armchair quarter-back other fields outside his expertise on the podcast Science… sort of.


  1. i’m still waiting on that hoverboard. 

    I guess part of the fun is that complete fantasy world and the “what if” of it all. 

    How much has futurism influenced Tech design?  I had a conversation about this with some industrial designers and they talked about how the communicator on Star Trek had to influence the clam shell cell phone and the same for Tablets. Someone dreams it…and then 10, 20, 30 yrs later someone figures out how to build something kind of like it.   

    one funny thing now is to see Sci Fi movies made even 10 years ago that are set in the future…people still using CRT’s 100 years in the future. Gotta love it! 

  2. just was reading about Marshall McLuhan and his ideas about media and how he sort of predicted the internet and personal computers and… well…just a strange coincidence that’s all

  3. I would say Amazing Spider-man is doing a good job showing the Futurists rate/success.  One issue Peter was able to use ideas for his Spidey gear for practical use, designing crash helmets and infrared tech.

    My favorite has to be Doombots!  Doom has been doing those for decades and while robots are getting better, we’re not advanced.

    Same thing for Sentinels.

  4. On a purely artistic level concerning the relationship of comics with Futurism as a visual arts movement I first think of Kenneth Rocafort and his work on Cyberforce:Hunter Killer and Velocity as prime examples. From an art history standpoint, Futurism is one of my favorite styles/movements, along with Surrealism and Dadaism. @Ryan haupt – @the entire iFanbase – Can you think of what are some other examples of artists working in a sort of Futurist style?

  5. @jwaesch  –That could get confusing. The Italian Futurists were highly conceptual and abstract in their art. Comic artists by their nature are pretty straight forward in their illustration. Plus I don’t see any comic artists making work that looks like a Boccioni sculpture…=)

    Actually i think Futurists would hate comics since they loathed everything old that didn’t fully embrace human interaction with technology. They’d be all about digital comics though! 

    We need a new art history name..maybe get it into the next edition of Gardners: Neo-Post-Sequential-Futurism. 

  6. @Wally – good points all around. I figured I was making quite a stretch, even with my example of Rocafort based on his visual style alone, But I would argue that in some sense the futurists would embrace comics as a visual medium because of their ability to depict movement/speed/passage of time on a single page/computer screen. I hope I don’t seem like I’m overthinking this or getting too nerdy about it. It’s just something I thought of after reading the article.

  7. @jwaesch  –nah its great…i was refreshing myself with Futurists this morning and read something about the philosophy of if they were going to paint a picture of people riding a bus, the people would be fully interacted into the mechanical movement and speed of the bus…man and machine fully intertwined. Soooo they’d do the same for comics. Would be incredibly abstracted and unreadable, but conceptually fun i’m sure.